November 16, 2010
When Robert A. Lue considers the Star Wars Death Star, his first thought is not of outer space, but inner space.
“Luke’s initial dive into the Death Star, I’ve always thought, is a very interesting way how one would explore the surface of a cell,” he said.
That particular scene has not yet been tried, but Dr. Lue, a professor of cell biology and the director of life sciences education at Harvard, says it is one of many ideas he has for bringing visual representations of some of life’s deepest secrets to the general public.
Dr. Lue is one of the pioneers of molecular animation, a rapidly growing field that seeks to bring the power of cinema to biology. Building on decades of research and mountains of data, scientists and animators are now recreating in vivid detail the complex inner machinery of living cells.
The field has spawned a new breed of scientist-animators who not only understand molecular processes but also have mastered the computer-based tools of the film industry.
“The ability to animate really gives biologists a chance to think about things in a whole new way,” said Janet Iwasa, a cell biologist who now works as a molecular animator at Harvard Medical School.